Sicily Travel Raised to 5-Star Standards

Sicily is making its mark with two refurbished Orient-Express hotels.
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LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) -- It's an iconic summer experience, a chic Italian vacation at one of Orient-Express's (OEH) portfolio of waterfront hotels, which include Hotel Splendido and Splendido Mare in Portofino.

In recent years, the company has changed its seaside presence with the Hotel Caruso Belvedere in Ravello along the Amalfi Coast. But in one of the biggest game-changing debuts to date, Orient-Express migrates to Sicily's Taormina starting May 27 for a one-two hotel punch that may alter the dynamics of this majestic town and traditionally affordable island escape forever.

Inside Orient-Express's refurbished Villa Sant'Andrea.

There's no easy way to get there. The most accessible is through Catania and a speedy highway trip up the southeastern shore of Sicily that gets progressively more picturesque before a hilltop fortress appears on a distant hilltop in the backdrop of a sometime-smoking Mount Etna that is the historic town of Taormina. Its name is virtually unknown to most Americans, who prefer Positano or Capri. But to overlook Taormina is to miss one of Italy's most beautiful wonders, a mountaintop topography with majestic Roman-Greco ruins and a lazy cable car that links it to a seaside paradise of secret swimming coves and offshore natural reserves untouched by mass tourism.

If arriving with your own set of wheels, getting to the

Grand Hotel Timeo

won't be the easiest of journeys even once you've arrived in Taormina. Confusing signs, if any at all, and roads shared with pedestrians take you to the edge of town near the entrance of Taormina's historic Teatro Greco ruins. There, you'll find the atrium-entrance of the larger and more opulent of Orient-Express's two newest hotels acquired this year. They were closed for a complete overhaul and brought up to 5-star standards.

Grand Hotel Timeo was hardly a wreck to begin with. But it was a laggard behind San Domenico Palace as the city's top hotel. Grand Hotel Timeo was built in 1873 and expanded over the years along a dramatic hilltop promontory with three private villas that maximize the head-on views of Mount Etna and the bay of Naxos. Poised to become Sicily's top hotel property, the location next to one of Italy's great historical ruins makes it a top draw during the annual Taormina Film Festival, held June 10-18.

The real attraction of Grand Hotel Timeo now is the Orient-Express aesthetic that has been translated through a sophisticated lobby that's not only historical but also design-worthy, with herringbone hardwood floors, pristine white plaster walls and upgraded furnishings that befit its history of hosting actresses from Sophia Loren to Elizabeth Taylor. Rooms feature ornate Italian furnishings with dramatic drapes that conceal floor-to-ceiling French doors opening to lavish balconies framed by Mediterranean views rivaled by few European hotels. The drama of the location cannot be overstated.

The hotel refurbished its in-house gourmet restaurant with a menu of Sicilian-inspired cuisine but in the same dining room and terrace as before. A large pool deck has been upgraded with its own poolside bar and sun loungers stretched out along a rectangular pool deck overlooking a formal garden and 180-degree views of the sea. Those looking to get even closer to the water are offered day use of the private beach at

Villa Sant'Andrea

, Orient-Express's new sister property located directly on the beach in Taormina Mare.

Villa Sant'Andrea is located three miles from Grand Hotel Timeo. Traditionally a haunt of dodgy 3-star hotel properties and chic beach clubs, Mazzaro Bay is home to this opulent property, which received an overhaul. It now boasts Europe's only Orient-Express property located on a sand beach. The hotel sprawls along one of Taormina Mare's most-beloved beaches, a rambling hotel with a fortress-like facade and a playful restaurant called Oliviero. The hotel features sun-lounger service by real-life bronzed and sculpted Italians.

Inside, Villa Sant'Andrea has a more relaxed vibe than its larger mountaintop sibling. The hotel feels like the private home of a rich Italian aunt who asks guests to cover up with a Pucci camisole or Etro sarong when walking through the ornate lobby with its parquet wood floors and exaggerated picture windows facing the Grotta Azzurra, an off-shore island with hidden caves. Guests choose among 63 rooms and suites decorated in a more traditional Sicilian mix of floral curtains and brightly colored furnishings.

The combination of a glossy hillside resort and adjacent beachfront property with Orient Express branding is likely to become a force to be reckoned with for resorts across Italy as global jetsetters come to discover the all-new, or at least new-to-you, Sicilian Riviera.

Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.